We brought our son to be tested for ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) this summer. He was fidgety, found it hard to sit still in school, had low concentration and was very impulsive. In other words, all completely normal symptoms of a five-year-old boy.
But I wanted to be sure so that I could give the best and most appropriate response to help him be his best self. Also, I am a complete overreacter.
To my surprise, the therapist explained that not only did he not have ADHD, he had retained some of his primitive reflexes and this was a really common issue that is often misdiagnosed as ADHD. And these retained reflexes could be responsible for a lot of the things that were getting him in trouble at school and at home. Wait, what?
Reflexes are muscle movements that happen unconsciously to certain stimuli. For example, you pull away your hand if it gets burnt on the hair-straightener. Babies are born with a set of these reflexes and they are called 'primitive reflexes' because they originate from the most primitive part of the brain.
They are hard-wired into our system to protect us from harm in infancy and to prepare us for later development changes like sitting and crawling. In fact, that's why these steps are so important in a baby's development. (My son crawled briefly but was up running at 10 months old).
Primitive reflexes should disappear within the first year of life and are replaced by higher-level conscious reflexes, and when they remain (retained) these pathways in the brain can result in symptoms that are linked to immaturities such as clumsiness, lack of concentration, squirming, over sensitivity, poor coordination, and much more.
Like anything, there are different levels of severity depending on how much of a reflex is retained. Luckily, my son had only retained two reflexes and they were extremely mild. The therapist was sure that with some repetitive exercises, we should notice a big difference.
The Moro reflex develops in a baby while in the womb and is fully noticeable at birth. It is the way your little one 'startles' suddenly in their sleep. It is part of the fight or flight survival response. It is completely involuntary and is activated at brainstem level.
If this reflex is retained, your child will have an exaggerated startle reaction - they will constantly be 'on alert' and ready to react very quickly to anything that can be perceived as 'danger' (including school yard fights!)
This over-activation can also impact other parts of your child's body - high cortisol levels released will result in an inability to balance blood sugar levels and can affect energy and mood throughout the day.
What struck me is that often, a child is labelled as having behavioural problems or being disruptive in school when in fact, they can't help themselves.
Our therapist explained that my son involuntary might kick his feet under the desk, while sitting in school. It seems like he is being 'difficult' or 'disruptive,' but the reality is that the poor love doesn't even realise what he's doing - it is involuntary.
In the school line, he might look around, and slightly lose balance because of another reflex called the Symmetrical tonic neck reflex (ATNR). It looks to the teacher like he is pushing in the line when, in fact, he has just fallen forward. The more it was explained to me, the more I realised how this was impacting every part of my son's life.
Another one is the Spinal Galant Reflex. This is where your baby curves their back when you stroke a finger down their spine. Its purpose is to encourage movement for walking and crawling. Those who retain this reflex can often have problems such as bed-wetting, fidgeting, the inability to sit still and an inability to concentrate.
This is why ADHD is often, wrongly, diagnosed.
The best part is that retained reflexes can be overcome through movement re-education or re-patterning.
The brain is extremely plastic. By taking the body through the physical motions of the developmental stage which was skipped, the brain is encouraged to develop the connections, which should have been formed during infancy.
We have exercises to do at home each evening with my son. The idea is that repetition should help the brain to reform these connections. We have already noticed some changes after 6 weeks - a calmer child who is less impulsive.
Of course, my son's personality also plays a large part. He is like his dad - energetic and mischievous, and I wouldn't want to change that for the world. But the part I feel I CAN guide him through I will focus on now and hopefully it will help him navigate the world a little more smoothly.
Here is more information on retained reflexes